When anxiety takes over - what does this mean for relationships?

Anxiety affects us all at various times. It may cause us to lose our ability to think clearly, to manage our own strong reactions to other people, and to calm ourselves down. Where anxiety is more than just a temporary response to a stressful situation, and is so intense or prolonged that we are unable to manage it on our own, it may be necessary to seek medical and psychogical help for what may be a mental illness.

When anxiety goes untreated or unmanaged, effects on relationships can be severe. Anxiety can be contagious - of course, I don't mean that you can 'catch' it like a virus! But it's hard to be around an anxious person without becoming edgy yourself, at least after a while.

It's tempting, when you're close to someone who is not managing their own anxiety, and has not sought help, to manage it for them. If you find yourself doing any of the following things, you may have fallen in to this trap.

 

  • you don't talk about things that you think will cause your partner anxiety, even when they are things that you really need to discuss.
  • you constantly think about keeping your home envioronment as stress-free as possible so your partner will be calm and relaxed (e.g. making sure the kids aren't too rowdy, keeping the house clean and tidy etc.)
  • you make decisions on your partner's behalf, if you think that trying to involve your partner in those decisions will cause him/her to 'stress out'. When you have to involve your partner in decisions, you do all the research in advance and present a limited range of options.
Of course, in moderation, all of these strategies can be helpful, and have their place. It's great when both of you are committed to creating a calm, peaceful environment where you can relax and enjoy each other. However, if you are doing these things most or all of the time, out of a fear that if your partner were to become to anxious s/he would not be able to cope, you have become your partner's "emotion regulator".
This is a dangerous path to go down - it's not possible to completely manage someone else's anxiety for them. Despite your best efforts, there will be times where your partner becomes anxious and is unable to manage it. It is always up to us to manage our own feelings, or if we can't, to seek help from the relevant professionals.
So, what can you do to help? After all, you love and care for your partner, and you want them to be OK. You may try some of the following strategies:-
  • gently encourage your partner to get help, but don't suggest it too many times. It is your partner's responsibility to get the help they need, not yours.
  • If your partner is becoming anxious and you feel tempted to step in, you need to manage your own stress response. Take a deep breath (or ten!), walk away, or say something that conveys your belief that your partner is able to calm themselves down. For example - if your partner says something like "I just can't cope with that noise!" you may respond with something like "It is noisy, isn't it!" Avoid suggesting a solution, agreeing that the noise is intrinsically anxiety-provoking, trying to convince your partner that the noise is OK etc. 
  • Let your partner know the impact of their failure to manage their own anxiety on you, and what YOU need. For example, " I feel really stressed when you complain to me about the noisy neighbours. I need you to manage it better, so we can enjoy our evening together." You may also say "What do YOU need to do about it?" If your partner is unable to come up with an answer straight away, allow them to sit with it and find their own solution. If they are having difficulty with this, simply reinforce your belief that they will eventually find their own answer.
If you are the one suffering from anxiety, the belief that you absolutely need someone else (your partner, family member etc) to help you remain calm is a very disempowering and ultimately further anxiety-provoking one. It's important that you develop these skills for yourself - with professional help if need be. If not for yourself, then for the health of your relationship!
Till next post, Vivienne.

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